The Initial Strategy provides the first global climate framework for the shipping sector and will support Paris Agreement targets.

By Paul Davies, Janice Schneider, and Eun-Kyung Lee


In April 2018, the Marine Environmental Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted an initial strategy to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in international shipping (Initial Strategy). The IMO is a United Nations agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution from ships. The Initial Strategy represents the first global climate framework for shipping. In tangible terms, IMO aims to reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels, while simultaneously planning to phase GHG emissions out entirely.

Initial Strategy aims and measures

The Initial Strategy consists of (i) a framework for Member States outlining guidelines for the international shipping industry in the future and (ii) short- mid- or long-term measures to reduce GHG emissions. For this purpose, the Initial Strategy determines several “levels of ambition” for the international shipping sector. Levels of ambition directing the Initial Strategy are as follows:

  • Carbon intensity of ships to decline through implementing further phases of the energy efficiency design index (EEDI) for new ships
  • Carbon intensity of international shipping to decline — including reducing CO2 emissions per transport work, as an average across international shipping, by at least 40% by 2030, pursuing efforts towards 70% by 2050, compared to 2008
  • GHG emissions from international shipping to peak and decline

Moreover, the Initial Strategy identifies measures that could indirectly support the GHG reduction efforts, including:

  • Supporting the development and update of national action plans
  • Encouraging ports to facilitate GHG reductions from shipping
  • Establishing an International Maritime Research Board to initiate and coordinate R&D activities
  • Pursuing zero-carbon or fossil-free fuels for the shipping sector and developing robust lifecycle GHG / carbon intensity guidelines for alternative fuels
  • Undertaking additional GHG emission studies to inform policy decisions
  • Encouraging technical cooperation and capacity-building activities

The Initial Strategy strives to support the efforts of the Paris Agreement by limiting global temperature increase well below 2°C. An IMO intersessional working group is planned for later this year, focused on developing an implementation plan for short-term measures. The Initial Strategy in its entirety is due to be revised by 2023.

The European Union agreed on a higher level of ambition in terms of emission reduction objectives for the shipping sector, namely 70-100% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. However, the European Commissioners Bulc and Arias Cañete still see IMO’s strategy “as a good starting point that will allow for further review and improvements over time.” The Commissioners add that “for this Initial Strategy to succeed, it is now crucial that effective reduction measures are swiftly adopted and put in place before 2023.” The EU and its Member States have a strong preference for an IMO-lead global approach as this will likely be the most effective strategy.

Lessons from the aviation sector

Similar to the developments in the aviation sector in 2012, the shipping sector could ultimately be integrated into the European or even a global emissions trading system in the future. The implementation of a monitoring, reporting, and verification system obliging ship operators to track their CO2 emissions — effective as of 1 January 2018 on the European level (Regulation (EU) 2015/757) — indicates a first step towards the aviation sector’s route prior to the inclusion of aviation activities in the EU ETS (Directive 2008/101/EC). This would at least affect all internal European shipping and could be extended to all ships either originating from or terminating at European harbors. In the aviation sector, the European efforts eventually urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to adopt a global approach through the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) — which will be operational in 2021. Latham will continue to monitor the progress of any regulatory developments and specific (short- and long-term) measures in the shipping sector.